On Terrorism

A small meditation for Paris, Beirut, Bamako and many others


They have no art, therefore all art must perish.
They have no songs, therefore all music must be silenced.
They have no dance, so all dancers must be crippled.
They have no joy, so all wine must be spilt.
They have no love, so all women must be invisible.
They have no truth, so all must be a lie.
They have no freedom, therefore we must all be slaves.
They have no life, therefore all must die.
They worship death, therefore they suicide easily
Being already dead.

Soup, beautiful soup

Reading has been on the back burner, except for the book group book, for the last couple of weeks as I have been trying to get the garden, and also the garage, back into order.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Hanoi Vietnam, in the present and from the perspective of the North. The author, Camilla Gibb, has a social anthropology background and has, no doubt, used her research skills, both in the literature and amongst the Vietnamese diaspora, to produce an authentic sounding portrayal of the city and its history.

The plot is driven by Maggie, a Vietnamese-American woman who is searching for relic of her father, who was a member of the fleeting intellectual movement that emerged just after the Viet Minh victory over the French in 1954. She becomes a catalyst for changes in the characters she encounters, especially Hung the street vendor who “makes the best phô in the city” and Tu, the somewhat buttoned up tourist guide.

Phô, the iconic Vietnamese soup, is the real hero of the novel, as its contents and quality, as prepared by Hung, mirror the tragic history of Vietnam from colonial times through the brief period of hope in independence, the brutal collectivisation, the American war to the current liberalisation. These are narrated in flashbacks, by Hung as he tries to recall any details of Maggies’s father. None of the characters are developed beyond their role in reaching the denouement, which itself seems rather contrived. The language is spare (that’s a compliment) and the author has a good ear, can write some eloquent and moving passages but the characters are too symbolic to be really convincing.

The making of phô is a long and complicated affair of developing subtle flavours in the broth. Some recipes call for the addition of sugar. It is unfortunate that the author has ladled in a large dollop at the end.

Inventing the Individual

The first chapter is on the ancient family, which is almost totally based on work by Fustel de Coulanges, and, if you have no idea who he was, it’s not surprising, as he died in 1889. Immediately, I am wondering why I am bothering read a book that relies on a work more than 150 years old,(La Cite antique, 1864) no matter how seminal it may have been. It appears from the references that Siedentop is a follower of continental, predominantly French scholarship. This is not a bad thing, and could be a corrective to the predominantly anglo-american perspective, though most of the citations I see, at a cursory glance, are nineteenth century. Be that as it may, the idea that Greek and Roman societies and families were hierarchical and paternalistic is scarcely controversial, Siedentop presents the classical family as an absolute dictatorship, founded on religious beliefs concerning the family sacred hearth and their ancestors. “Nor should we suppose that the claims of family piety were much weakened in later historical times, when families were joined in larger associations.” (p 15) But that is not the whole story. The ideology transmitted to us in the texts is that of an elite, and is already idealised.  It is likely that the reality was much more complex.  Our own society stresses individuality, yet nearly all of our institutions are hierarchical to a greater or lesser degree. In Rome there were forces such as the state and the army, even in republican times, beginning to break down traditional social forms. I feel constrained to quote another old French historian, Jérôme Carcopino, from Daily Life in Ancient Rome (trans E.O.Lorimer)

“…the two essential weapons of the patria potestas were gradually blunted: the fathers absolute authority over his children, and the husband’s absolute authority over the wife placed ‘in his hand…”
p 90

” Similarly, after the end of the republic, the emancipation of a child had entirely changed in significance and effect. In ancient days it was a punishment,… Now emancipation had become a benefit.”
p 91

Siedentop’s thesis is that the decisive event, leading eventually to the concept of “the individual”, was the invention of christianity.  I say invention, advisedly, because, of course, Siedentop explicitly believes in the reality of Jesus, and all that that entails. For this reason he is at pains to exaggerate the differences and down play the continuities.

Holiday Reading

I picked up a book to read while we were away, and downloaded two to Kindle, though I didn’t get very far with any of them!

Maggie Thatcher famously said, unless it is apocryphal, “There is no such thing as Society”, to which my reply would be – there is no such thing as the individual. This is true in two senses, the individual can only be conceived of in relationship to other individuals, thus some kind of society, and without the support of any organized society, the fate of the individual would be Hobbesian indeed.

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop, thus seemed a profitable read, but having started it, I realise I should have read the prologue. It appears to be mainly christian apologetic. “People who live in the nations once described as part of Christendom …. seem to have lost their moral bearings.” Oh dear, grumpy old fart syndrome on the first page. The author is a fellow of Kempe college, Oxford, should have known.

Anyway I am determined to read it through, I wonder if there will be anything at all that I agree with? Actually, there is one statement I can agree with: “…that beliefs are nonetheless of primary importance, an assumption once far more widely held than it is today”, and another which which I agree may be true for some ideas, if not all, “…changes in belief, can take centuries to begin to modify social institutions.” (p 2)

New Book Category

To kick off this new theme I’ll just say what I’m reading at the moment.

I usually have two or three books on the go, one is a book group book, which I won’t post about until after the meeting, the others are usually some variety of history or popular science.

The current book group book is The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb and my history title is Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop.

End Times II

Time to wrap up the travelogue.

I had a number of completely incorrect preconceptions about Strasbourg.  One that it was on the Rhine, it’s on the river L’Ill. (That looks totally weird in this font, it’s capital “I”, two small “l”s)   Another, that it was a typical, rather boring middle sized city.  Actually it is quite fabulous, surrounded by the river and canal, with probably the most impressive cathedral I’ve seen and many sixteenth century, half timbered buildings.


Glimpse of the Cathedral

The stained glass is very impressive too.   Here are a couple of Carolingian kings,


Lothar and Ludwig

one of them claiming to be Roman Emperor.

Collette has some things to do in town, so we are just walking around and admiring all the fine buildings and sights in the centre and around the river and we will meet her later.


Place Kleber


On the river, Eglise St Paul in the background

After a traditional Tarte flambee, like a thin crust pizza, we continue on to the area known as Petite France, a series of canals and locks, with a medieval covered bridge.


Petite France


View from the bridge gallery

There are many chateaux along the line of the Vosges, most of them in ruins, but there is one which has been restored, Haut Koenigsberg, about 50 minutes from Strasbourg, was first built in the 12th century, fell into disrepair, was restored in the 14th century and againn ruined, but was substantially rebuilt in the 1880’s after the Franco-Prussian war.  It was really a great propaganda statement, by Kaiser Wilhelm after Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by the German empire.

It is difficult to get an overall idea of the chateau, so I’ve included this photograph of a model outside the entrance.


The chateau is quite a rabbit warren with many halls, courtyards, barracks and private rooms.


Inner Courtyard


Luxury room with ensuite

There are also defensive positions opposite the steep and narrow approach ridge.


Defensive position

The weather was misty, but on a clear day you can see well into Germany, across the Rhine.  This next shot is a bit blurry but gives some idea of the height.


View from the Chateau

That rounds off our trip to Eastern Europe, generously defined, and the next day we were back to Frankfurt (am Main) without further incident and on our way home.

Thanks to all who have read my ramblings, I will keep on posting, though perhaps not so frequently, about art and this and that.  I’m also going to start a new page on “What I’m Reading”, so I hope some of you will look in from time to time.

End Times

No, not that kind of End Times, but the denouement of our East European trip.

As I mentioned before, we are staying with our friend Colette in Alsace and so royally were we treated, we were in danger of staying for ever.  In the three days that remained we have visited three vastly different areas.  First a walk around Wasselonne (W=V)


Eva and Colette in Wasselonne


Building dated 1610

The medieval town of Wagen  was almost too pretty, as if were the set for a Disney princess movie.


Flowery chariot

Nevertheless it is a real functioning  town and though it has a tourist season, the foundation of its viability is wine, and being autumn the grapes have been harvested and the town was totally quiet when we visited.


A back street of Wangen

Walking through the town into the country roads makes this evident.


Vinyards stretch into the distance

This mini-tractor with hydraulic forks, removes old vines in about 10 seconds!


Removing old grape vines

The countryside is extremely beautiful, especially in autumn colours.  The land is gently rolling, vines cover the south facing slopes and mixed broardleaf forest on the ridges.  Further west, valleys intrude into the foothills of the Vosges mountains, often with picturesque villages like Andlau, below.



This post is getting to be a bit bigger than  anticipated, so I’ll break it into three.  Next time Strasbourg.